La Luz del Mundo: God May Not Live in a Material Church, But He's Building a Sweet Pad

I left the Catholic Church when I was 17. I'd been fussing for a while with all the weirdness about virgin birth and resurrection and the bilocation of St. Anthony of Padua, when one Sunday, on the way home from Mass, I casually referred to transubstantiation as a metaphor.

My mother, riding in the front seat of my father's big green Pontiac, snorted out a short laugh. "Transubstantiation is not a metaphor," she said. "It's real."

That was it for me: I might have made peace with all the chanting and confessing and genuflecting, but I couldn't remain among people who believed they were performing actual cannibalism — Divine Liturgy or not.

I hung onto my affection for churches, though, long after my exit from religion. I love a good steeple, and an especially parochial wall of stained glass can cause me to levitate with joy. It is, I think, the combination of the virtuous nature of these buildings and the often wild architecture of some of them that draws me to many of the churches in the Valley, several of which I've documented in this column in the past. Like the former Capstone Cathedral, a pyramid-shaped, super-spaceship of a church at Tatum and Shea that's now a Bank of America. And the Asbury United Methodist Church at 16th Avenue and Indian School Road, known among locals as the Cupcake Church because it's shaped like a giant Hostess snack cake. And my new favorite, the Vietnamese Martyrs Parish at 29th Avenue and Northern, a big, glittering pagoda of a building that looks for all the world like a Chinese takeout joint.

I love big, gaudy church buildings. And so I nearly drove off the I-10 stack one afternoon as I maneuvered its widest curve — where the freeway hooks up with southbound I-17 — and spotted the giant metal dome bursting from the former parking lot of Iglesia La Luz del Mundo and poking into the sky next to the stack.

La Luz del Mundo, or Light of the World, was founded in Mexico in 1926 and is based in the west-central city of Guadalajara, where Mass is held in a soaring cathedral the size of three football fields. Here, its congregants are mostly Spanish-speaking downtowners; services are held in Spanish and many of the church officials are immigrants.

La Luz's thousand-strong congregation had outgrown its old home, once known as the Four Square Church and today one of the largest old adobe structures in Arizona. Original plans to demolish the original church were met with dismay from local preservationists from the F.Q. Story historic neighborhood in which the building resides, and La Luz's pastor, Carlos A. Montemayor, caved in and redrew his plans to allow the adobe church to remain standing.

Montemayor designed the new Moorish-themed church himself and hired an architect ("I can't remember her name," Montemayor admitted to me during a recent phone conversation) to make his rough sketches into a buildable reality. The colossal structure, which will combine curvilinear stainless steel with a Sedona-inspired red rock skirting, is funded by its congregation and being constructed gratis by church members who work in the building trades. The renderings on La Luz's website scream "Big Zany Mosque!" and I can't wait to see the completed building.

Located next door to a very noisy Arizona Department of Transportation gravel yard at about Latham Street and 15th Avenue, the new church will, once it's completed, dwarf its predecessor with a chapel that's nearly as tall as that wacky dome. Based on the renderings, the interior will be pretty typical contemporary church fare, except that everything will be a heck of a lot bigger. The lobby will rival Gammage Auditorium's and will open onto a mammoth, pillared main room with a balconied terrace. Its most interesting interior features include a gigantic, Phantom of the Opera-worthy chandelier and an enormous cutout in the overhead dome that will allow natural light to pour onto the congregates, who will no doubt be tithing for a very long time to come to pay for their mammoth new house of prayer.

The church won't be completed for nearly a year, Montemayor told me, but that's not stopping the good Father from bringing people to the Lord. In one very surreal clip posted to La Luz's website, one can watch people being baptized right on the construction site — dunked into a fiberglass tub, surrounded by framing girders and cheered on by hard-hatted workmen.

"We don't believe that the Lord lives in a material temple," Montemayor said last week, "but rather in our hearts."

Really? Then why not deliver sermons from any old building, I asked him, rather than a big, shiny dome as tall as our tallest downtown overpass? "A godly monument next to the freeway is a beautiful thing," he replied. "Everyone will see it and come be with God."

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela